Perfect Day sent FDA a GRAS notice—essentially explaining why they believe their new form of whey protein is safe. Then in March of 2020, they were informed that the agency “had no questions,” meaning it wouldn’t contest the use of the ingredients.
“We’re giving a microorganism the instructions on how to make a protein it wouldn’t normally make,” said Geistlinger.
But not everyone sees it that way. “Their basic argument is that because fungus-made whey is chemically identical to animal-made whey, it should therefore be approved. This also seems to be the FDA’s reasoning, but it’s based on the company’s argument,” says Iles.
“They’re assuming that because the amino acid is the same, nothing else has changed,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “Could this product that they’re producing have a different impact on gut microflora, for example, compared to a whey protein from a cow? The answer is, we don’t know. At the DNA level, it’s different.”
For this reason, Hansen says, “It would seem appropriate that these products be treated like new food additives.” And yet, at the same time, he believes the fact that Perfect Day is submitting GRAS notices at all is worth noting. Because the GRAS process is voluntary, “there could be companies out there putting these kinds of products into their foods without letting anybody know.”
That’s why Hansen and others in the public health and food safety fields have concerns about the GRAS that extend far beyond Perfect Day. The Center for Food Safety and the Environmental Defense Fund sued the FDA over the GRAS rule in 2017, and a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last October. Lawmakers have also introduced bills in Congress that would require the agency to study and reassess the chemicals used in foods.
The company acknowledges that allergies are a concern for those who might mistake the product for dairy-free. It has worked with the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska and includes an allergen warning on the front of packaging, in addition to the mandated back of package warning.
“We do not plan to do human testing because our whey protein is bioidentical to traditional whey protein which has been a staple of diets for centuries,” Geistlinger said. “Additionally, precision fermentation has been used safely for over five decades to create the majority of food enzymes, like rennet used for cheese manufacturing globally, and other common food staples.”
Michele Simon, a public health attorney and the former executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, compares the way companies like Perfect Day use terms like “precision fermentation” to earlier attempts seed and pesticide companies made to obfuscate the fact that they were using new, unknown technology to breed GMO seeds.
“In the Monsanto era, the biotech industry did a great job in getting the federal government to not require companies that use genetic engineering to label their products accordingly,” says Simon, “That’s been the history of the FDA for decades.” Last June, she penned a LinkedIn article examining Perfect Day’s “rush to market” with the Brave Robot ice cream and pointed to their use of the term “vegan friendly” despite the fact that it is made with whey. In it, she called out the brand’s narrative: “This messaging, attempting to justify a new form of biotechnology by comparing it to age-old food-making techniques should sound familiar,” Simon writes. “It’s from the Monsanto playbook.”
Replacing Factory Farming?
The market for plant-based alternatives is growing as more than 52 percent of Americans say they are eating more of these foods. But it’s not exactly clear whether new high-tech alternatives will actually lead to a reduction in overall consumption of factory farmed meat and dairy. In fact, overall U.S. meat consumption appears to have gone up slightly between 2020 and 2021. Overall dairy consumption has also increased more or less consistently since 2002.
“These companies will tell you they’re on a mission to displace dairy, but they can’t explain how putting out GMO protein products is displacing anything in the food system,” said Simon, who is an outspoken vegan. “Is Starbucks going to stop serving dairy now? The only way to save the nation from the damages of dairy production is to get a company to stop serving the harmful dairy.”
And not everyone wants to see all dairy displaced. For instance, Iles says that while the current model of industrial animal agriculture isn’t sustainable, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t move in that direction.
“Dairy has become very intensive, dependent on energy-consuming technologies, building much more massive cow herds than before, and using feed sourced from soybeans. At the same time, animals are central to sustainable agriculture. Not only can they contribute important inputs to a farm, they support a functioning farm ecosystem and help support a diversified farming system. So reducing—not eliminating—dairy milk would be a good idea.” He also points to the plight of farmers in places like Wisconsin, which lost 10 percent of its dairy farms in 2019 alone. “We need more support for those farmers to survive and to practice sustainable agriculture,” adds Iles.
“It’s important to not fall into a binary—that we have to choose between horrific factory farming or problematic GMOs,” says Dana Perls, the food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth. “There are very sustainably grown, organic, plant-based proteins. There are also very well managed, pasture-based production systems that have been providing a very critical alternative to factory meat and dairy,” she added.
And while Perfect Day doesn’t make big health claims, it isn’t clear that most consumers see meat alternatives as the heavily processed products they are.
“In recent years, ultra-processed foods have emerged as a major concern for public health experts,” said Iles. “Even if the [dairy products] are not in the same category as, say, packaged meals, it still amounts to a model of food production that is in the same line as the industrial foods we’ve been eating for decades,” he said.